Panetta Accepts Intrepid Freedom Award

By: Donna Miles
May 24, 2012

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta accepted the 2012 Intrepid Freedom Award for his outstanding leadership in support of freedom and democracy tonight, praising members of the U.S. military, whose sacrifice, adaptability and innovative spirit he called key to a strong national defense.

Panetta was honored by Mel M. Immergut, vice president of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, at the museum’s 21st annual Salute to Freedom Dinner. The defense secretary spoke to about 900 attendees at the dinner via video feed and told them he felt honored to be associated with an organization that does so much for America’s military heroes.

Panetta paid tribute to the Fisher family and the work of the Intrepid Family of Foundations: the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, the Fisher House Foundation and the Intrepid Relief Fund. He said all the foundations “make a crucial difference in the life of our armed forces,” providing critical support to troops, veterans, wounded warriors and families through hardship, need and heartbreak.

In addition, he said the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum provides a “timeless lesson” for its visitors. “Our freedom, our security and our very way of life are made possible only because there have been those among us willing to fight and to die to make it so,” he said.

“Our men and women in uniform embody what makes America strong: the determination to overcome any challenge and the willingness to sacrifice for our children,” he said.

The museum, he said, also offers a reminder of military’s spirit of innovation he said remains key to a strong defense.

“I’m talking about the ability to look around the corner, perceive new challenges and develop ways to leap ahead of potential adversaries or competitors,” Panetta said. It’s not only the ability to fight, he said, “but to be able to anticipate how and where and against whom we need to fight.”

Innovation isn’t a new concept for the military, Panetta said, noting some of the far-reaching achievements it has generated: the jet engine, space travel, the Internet and now remotely piloted and automated vehicles.

He recognized the history of USS Intrepid as a story of innovation in the face of crisis and adversity. With its keel laid just one week before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Intrepid went on to play a decisive role in defeating the Japanese navy and security victory in the Pacific.

Fighting a different kind of war against a different kind of adversary for more than 10 years, the U.S. military has stayed true to this tradition, he said.

“Just as with World War II, we have made very clear that nobody attacks America and gets away with it,” Panetta said, drawing applause from the audience. “What we have done to [Osama] bin Laden and al-Qaida’s leadership sends a message that we will do whatever we have to do to protect our country.”

It’s been a decade of great challenge, the secretary conceded, but one in which military members continued to innovate and adapt to the challenges they faced.

“Across the services, our men and women have become vastly more networked, more capable and more effective at operating on the 21st Century battlefield,” he said. “This next greatest generation of heroes has exemplified the spirit of innovation and spirit of leadership that runs through the United States military.”

Panetta called on leaders in business and government to find ways to support service members and their families as they serve and after they separate from the military.

“These men and women who have fought and bled for us over the last 10 years want to find ways to lead and to contribute to a better future for themselves and for their children,” he said.

“These are men and women who have been tested by war, who have demonstrated the greatest qualities of leadership, of sacrifice and of innovation,” the secretary said. “In them I see the very best that America has to offer, and I see a hope for a better future.”

Also honored at last night’s Salute to Freedom dinner were Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who received the 2012 Salute to Woman Award, and JPMorgan Chase and Co. Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon, who received the 2012 Intrepid Salute Award.

Country music star Trace Adkins sang the National Anthem and other patriotic songs.